COLUMN: Tolls at the polls?

COLUMN: Tolls at the polls?

The cost of using the Port Mann Bridge and the blatant unfairness of the current tolling system needs to become a major election issue.

As Transportation Minister Mary Polak and NDP transportation critic Harry Bains talk about how best to reform TransLink, B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins cut to the chase on Monday.

Cummins, the former Delta MP who is running against Polak in Langley, focused on a current transportation sore point. He promised a BC Conservative government would give frequent users of the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, and of B.C. Ferries, tax credits to be applied against their provincial income taxes. The maximum credit would be $408, andy the credits would take effect in 2014, and in 2015 for operators of commercial vehicles.

Cummins gets the fact that the bridge tolls and ferry fares put certain people in certain parts of the province at an economic disadvantage. While ferry fares have been in place for years, they are a very real barrier to island and Sunshine Coast residents. Ferry fares are going up again on Monday, and those who are a ferry ride away from everywhere else have no choice but to pay them.

Many Surrey residents feel the same way these days, with tolls in place on both the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges. While transit was touted as an alternative when the bridge was under construction, Surrey residents can’t ride a bus over either bridge without travelling to Langley first. This is hardly a realistic alternative.

And for those who are using transit as an alternative to tolled bridges, there is a tax credit in place already – courtesy of the federal government.

While Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and several other municipal leaders have suggested that a more uniform road and bridge tolling system throughout the Lower Mainland would be fairer, the provincial government has no interest in that idea. Premier Christy Clark made that quite clear in answering a question on the topic Monday.

It seems that both the BC Liberals and NDP have abandoned Surrey drivers for the present. Polak says they will have to learn to accept tolling of the bridges, and points to the alternatives of the Pattullo and Alex Fraser Bridges.

Bains has said that, if elected, there is little the NDP could do about the existing tolls because the Liberals have put in place an agreement to repay the cost of the bridge over 40 years.

Along comes Cummins, with an idea that could help put a little money back into the pockets of those who are forced to pay the tolls. The BC Liberals have already said his idea (which he estimates would cost $45 million the first year) isn’t economically sustainable – but does that mean that Surrey drivers should have to pay more to go to work than commuters in other parts of the region?

While the provincial election is still seven weeks away, the cost of using the Port Mann Bridge and the blatant unfairness of the current tolling system needs to become a major issue in the various election races south of the Fraser.

Cummins’ idea has, at the least, once again pushed these issues to the forefront. It’s an important issue because most Surrey residents will be paying tolls for many years to come.

If neither the BC Liberals nor the NDP have any interest in a fairer regional tolling system, then a provincial tax credit is a good alternative.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

Surrey North Delta Leader